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JCCC Stories

Real Love, No Drama

July 9, 2016

English professor Danny Alexander writes book on Mary J. Blige

Why Mary J. Blige? As Danny Alexander explains it, he wants to write about the things (and people) no one else has written about.

Alexander, professor of English at Johnson County Community College, chose Mary J. Blige as the subject of his book “Real Love, No Drama” because she straddled the line between fame and enigma, soul and hip-hop, street-smart power and struggling vulnerability.

“I couldn’t believe no one had written a book about her,” he said.

Something about Mary

The artist carries the name “the queen of hip-hop soul” and has sold more than 50 million albums. She’s played the White House and worked with Aretha Franklin and Beyonce, among others. She’s won Grammys and acted in movies and television. So why has so much of her life gone relatively unnoticed by biographers until now?

“I think one reason is because there is no one else quite like her,” Alexander said.

The book is part of the American Music Series published by the University of Texas Press (UTP), which delves into the lives of artists as varied as Dwight Yoakam, Los Lobos and Madonna.

Alexander was introduced to the series by long-time friend and JCCC colleague David Cantwell. Cantwell, adjunct professor of English at JCCC, published “Merle Haggard: The Running Kind” in 2013 at UTP.

“David and I go way back,” Alexander said. Both worked on the staff of several Kansas City publications, and both share a history of writing about music while teaching at JCCC.

The Women

For Alexander, the choice of Blige for the series was easy. “I didn’t think too hard about it. To me, there weren’t many other others that offered the stature, longevity and iconic significance of Mary J. Blige.”

Alexander said he’s always been drawn to female vocalists. In his early 20s, his personal life seemed better reflected by females than by ‘80s power ballads.

“I found myself especially drawn to music by women, particularly R&B, hip-hop and soul music made by women,” Alexander said. “Women addressed the nuances not found in radio pop culture.”

White Man’s Burden

The book contains information from interviews with Blige’s friends and collaborators, but many were nervous to talk to Alexander. There’s no interview with Blige herself.

“It turned out I had picked exactly the wrong time to write about (Blige),” he said. In 2013, MJB had some trouble with the Internal Revenue Service, and the media swarmed around her. Not all the coverage was accurate or fair, which understandably made Blige nervous to talk to Alexander or to allow her “people” to speak freely, Alexander said.

“I knew that might happen,” Alexander said. “Mary came from the low-income projects of Yonkers. Reporters and writers who speak with artists of Blige’s stature tended to be upper middle-class, high educated, so there are always trust issues.”

To those writerly adjectives above, add “white” and “male” to Danny Alexander’s resume. He’s aware of the concerns that arise from an educated white man writing about an African-American woman.

“I don’t want to get in the way of women or women of color telling the story, but I think that’s a false limitation. Mary J. Blige’s music spoke to me, and I was part of her audience,” he said. “I am very conscious of identity politics…but the Blige fans I’ve talked to have appreciated that I wanted to write about her.”